As foreign ministers met in Beirut on Wednesday to discuss the
shape of a UN peacekeeping force, France was poised to take its
biggest role in decades on the Middle East stage as the force's lead
army in Lebanon.
French troops have long been involved in missions in Africa,
Afghanistan, and Bosnia, and they participate in the weak UN
observer force, now led by a French Army general, which has been
based in southern Lebanon since 1978.
But their anticipated deployment, meant to support the cease-
fire and enforce an arms embargo in southern Lebanon, marks a shift
in France's relations with the Arab world, and with the US, its old
rival for influence in the region.
If France has learned any lessons for Lebanon from its
experiences as a peacekeeper elsewhere, it is to insist on muscular
rules of engagement that allow its soldiers to take the offensive,
and fire their weapons, if necessary, says Guillaume Parmentier, a
former French Defense Ministry official who is with the French
Institute of Foreign Relations in Paris. France will also need a
"spoken or unspoken" commitment from Hizbullah to cooperate with UN
"What we want to avoid is what we met when we were in Bosnia
before the Dayton agreement, where you have to make peace ...
without the proper means," he says. "You can't have a situation
where you can only reply when attacked, but can't intervene when
things are going on in front of your eyes," he says. "That spells
complete disaster, like what happened at Srebrenica."
The UN resolution to end the fighting between Israel and
Hizbullah provides for the multinational force to help the Lebanese
Army establish control in south Lebanon as Israeli and Hizbullah
forces withdraw. It includes an arms embargo, a mission that could
mean international peacekeepers are deployed along the Syrian-
Lebanese border to stop weapons shipments to Hizbullah from Syria.
While details and rules of engagement are still being worked out
at the UN, France has been asked to quickly send 3,500 soldiers to
Lebanon, where a jittery cease-fire took effect on Monday. At full
strength, the UN force is envisioned at 15,000.
So far, Italy and Turkey have indicated that they are willing to
contribute troops. Foreign Minister Philippe Douste-Blazy, in
Beirut, did not specify the number of troops France would send, and
stated that while France was ready to play an important role in the
force, it was vital that many other countries contribute. Germany
announced it was willing to contribute to security on the border
The Lebanese cabinet, meeting Wednesday, approved the deployment
of 15,000 troops to southern Lebanon starting Thursday. Israel had
said it will stop withdrawal unless those troops move in quickly.
The cabinet appeared divided about Hizbullah's arms, which Hizbullah
has said it will not forgo. That has raised concerns about the
expectations for peacekeepers.
Douste-Blazy said the arms were an issue for Lebanon's
government. He said that the UN force's mandate "is aimed at helping
the Lebanese Army deploy, to contribute to the return of the
displaced [persons] to their homes, and to the transporting of
humanitarian aid. …